University of Alabama campus

University of Alabama campus

Like bees to honey, monolithic institutions attract criticism regardless of substance or legitimacy. Size and influence matter. The University of Alabama can’t escape it.

UA is Alabama’s namesake university, its historic campus bears Civil War scars and its brand is nationwide, if not global. Yet, it’s having difficulty tamping down criticism that its fevered recruitment of out-of-state students is a shift too far away from home-grown students.

The numbers are easy to comprehend. The argument’s nuance is not.

In 2002-03, UA’s freshman enrollment of out-of-state students was 626. Last year it was 2,406. Those statistics, and others like them, come from a recent report by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation that is being widely discussed in national higher-education circles. The legacy of former UA President Robert Witt — who served from 2003 to 2012 — is a state university that dramatically increased its out-of-state student population during his tenure and used the additional revenue to just as dramatically enhance its campus and academic offerings.

More numbers: 38,392 students attended UA last fall, the university says. Just 40.1 percent came from Alabama — giving its student population a decidedly non-Alabama tint. If comparisons matter, here are two. Of Auburn University’s 27,485 students last fall, 16,988 were from Alabama. At Jacksonville State University, 6,983 of its 8,479 students last fall were from Alabama.

More examples: 147 Illinois residents attended UA a decade ago, the Chicago Tribune reported last summer. That number jumped to 1,623 in the fall of 2017. Other states enjoyed similar increases.

And, more nuance: These sweeping alterations to the university’s recruiting philosophy and student-population demographics are occurring during an era where most state legislatures are reducing their higher-education appropriations. The exorbitant tuitions out-of-state students face are one way public colleges and universities can replace that lost funding.

It’s not surprising that UA and the authors of the Joyce Foundation report are sparring over the fairness of that publication, which also claimed the university doesn’t adequately recruit Alabama students who live in the Black Belt or other low-income regions. Ozan Jacquette, an assistant professor at UCLA and one of the report’s authors, told AL.com that “Alabama is far and away the extreme version of this” recruiting philosophy. The university disagrees. “UA’s out-of-state population has had a positive effect on providing additional financial support and enrollment growth that has expanded our student body, enhanced our honors college and highlighted student achievements," the school said in a statement.

We’re not inclined to criticize UA, former President Witt or its current administration for embracing the fiscal and diversity advantages of out-of-state students. The logic is defensible. The university’s enrollment has skyrocketed and its national academic standings have improved. But our concern remains where it’s always been — with the students from Alabama, many of whom are first-generation college students, who come from families overburdened by today’s tuition costs, and who are in danger of being priced out of a four-year degree.

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